Fool's Paradise: The Unreal World of Pop Psychology
by Stewart Justman. Ivan R. Dee, 2005 ($27.50)
The genre of psychological self-help books has grown tremendously, and authors such as Dr. Phil (McGraw), Wayne Dyer and John Gray are repeat visitors to the best-seller lists. Such popularity poses a paradox, though: If the books really worked, why would readers need to keep buying them? In the erudite yet lively Fool's Paradise, literary scholar Stewart Justman argues that pop psychology texts are ineffective because, among other things, they encourage people to hyperfocus on their own emotional states. He approvingly cites philosopher John Stuart Mill's maxim: "Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so."
Justman, professor of liberal studies at the University of Montana, offers a severe and mostly persuasive critique of pop psychology print media rather than of radio and television. Quoting liberally from books that purport to give life-changing advice, he castigates the field for offering unrealistic expectations of self-transformation, for dogmatic tone, and for dubious doctrines such as honoring one's "authentic self" by discarding feelings of obligation and morality. Along the way Justman points out some monumental ironies, such as authors' demands that readers reject other people's demands. He likewise notes that although the literature is unoriginal and repetitious, it instructs readers to make a sharp break with the past.
Pop psychology, according to Justman, is a “utopian enterprise” inspired by the protest movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. Although this interpretation has some merit, one could argue that pop psychology marked a turn away from political activism into self-absorption. Similarly, Justman’s assertion that pop psychology derides most guilt but welcomes “liberal guilt” over historical injustices seems to overstate the politics of a genre that is largely apolitical.
Less disputable, however, is that most of the manuals are badly written. The literature is rife with supposed success stories about people overcoming negative emotions and behaviors—many of which are suspiciously sketchy and formulaic. Loose or out-of-context quotations from serious literary and philosophical works are another ill staple of the genre, as when self-help authors celebrate the Shakespearean line “To thine own self be true,” mouthed by the questionable character of Polonius in Hamlet.
As Justman writes, pop psychology’s many practitioners may include “a few who do not subscribe to the dubious doctrines probed here.” Still, citing more than 40 guidebooks, he
shows that the field’s problems are serious indeed. —Kenneth Silber
Following His Nose
by Edmund T. Rolls. Oxford University Press, 2005 ($75)
Physicians began to study in earnest the brain’s generation of emotions in 1848 after a long iron bar shot through railroad worker Phineas Gage’s prefrontal cortex. He lived, but his personality changed drastically.
The prefrontal cortex is the central switchboard in emotional processing. Edmund T. Rolls, professor of psychology at the University of Oxford, details this brain region at length in Emotion Explained, a state-of-the-field text intended for the upper-level university classroom. Rolls’s thesis is that emotions are “states elicited by rewards and punishers” and that we behave so as to maximally reward hardwired circuits in our brains (which, he notes, we could do directly by electrical stimulation). He also posits that emotions have played an important role in human evolution by allowing our genes to set goals without specifying the actions we must take. But despite the book’s bold title, it is clear that scientists are far from a complete explanation of emotion.
Emotion Explained can be a slow go. Rolls takes 360 pages to get to love and grief. Even then, he explains love in the context of sexual behavior and diagnoses grief as the absence
of a reward, compounded by our knowledge that the reward will never return. His style is technical and textbooklike in the large chunk devoted to neuroanatomy, but Rolls leavens
the tone with anecdotes and wry asides.
Although odor isn’t the first thing one may think of in connection with emotion, much of the book focuses on how sensory inputs such as odor and taste are associated with reward values in the orbitofrontal cortex, located directly behind the eyeballs. Rolls’s research specialty is olfaction, and he draws on it to illustrate the key linkages between primary and secondary stimuli and reward values. Rolls broadens his concept to other stimuli, but olfaction always lurks in the background.
Emotion Explained is a long, comprehensive survey, but the reader finishes with a wish for more explanation. There is no discussion of how genes might determine behavior, and Rolls dodges the question of whether social expectations influence our emotions. Evidently there is more to love, loss and satisfaction than meets the eye—or nose. —Kaspar Mossman
Brains of the Sexes
Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget
by Marianne J. Legato, with Laura Tucker. Rodale, 2005 ($24.95)
A four-year-old could tell you that men and women are not the same, but even adults struggle to explain why. That is where Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget steps in. Citing a plethora of recent research, Marianne J. Legato sets out to describe why men and women vary so widely in their reactions and thoughts. In so doing, she hopes that readers will grasp the science of our biochemically controlled brains and, in light of it, seek to limit discord between men and women in the home and workplace.
A tool kit to fix the male-female communication conundrum is an admirable goal, but one that Legato does not quite achieve. Although the science behind our divergent brains provides mini-epiphanies, the focus of the book gets lost in its mix of memoir, guidance and concrete science. The information to help the sexes get along better shows up occasionally, as in a brief reference to a mother who employs what she now knows about the male brain to fight less with her teenage son. Still, there are a lot of diversions along the way.
One distraction is the decidedly female vantage point taken. Legato, a champion of rectifying medicine’s lapse in female-focused research, is a doctor who founded Columbia University’s Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine, where the word “gender” might as well be “female.” For a book trying to bridge knowledge gaps, Legato represents the male world in strikingly few instances.
The skewed view may arise from trying to force the theme of “the sexes are from different planets.” Legato might have better served the reader by explaining how sex-based brain revelations can affect our lives—how doctors could provide better health care when it is geared toward each sex, how teachers could optimize student learning by tailoring their
approaches, and, yes, why women in the bedroom need not be offended if their male partners do not necessarily want to cuddle.
Despite missing the opportunity to explore the future relevance of gender brain science, the book does offer a fair amount of enlightening information. Although Legato does not provide that much guidance for how to use our new awareness, a thinking person can start
to figure it out. And whether you are male or female, isn’t that what our brains are for? —Sarah Todd Davidson
Really from Mars
Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens
by Susan A. Clancy. Harvard University Press, 2005 ($22.95)
One dark night in 1961 an event occurred that opened a new chapter in paranormal psychology: two Americans were, they later claimed, abducted by aliens. Similar claims have been coming ever since. Susan A. Clancy, a Harvard psychologist who describes herself as “a reluctant scholar of alienology,” has investigated many of them and written this short, insightful and often funny description of abductees and the psychology behind their experiences. Clancy is never condescending toward the 50 subjects she interviewed; she simply asks questions, listens and then presents her own carefully reasoned explanation for why they might believe they were abducted.
Fortunately, Clancy is well equipped to understand strange events. She has not only studied hypnosis but experienced it and the false memories it can “recover.”
She has also awoken to the terror of “sleep paralysis,” an unusual state in which an
individual perceives senses as if she is awake but is unable to move because parts
of the brain are still asleep; hallucinations are common. Clancy believes this phenomenon, which typically lasts about a minute, is behind most of her subjects’ narratives. Many share the same basic storyline: the person awakens in the dark with
aliens moving around her and is transported to a spaceship, where she is subject to medical or sexual experiments. Abductees may be able to recall every detail or instead
only “know” that it happened. In quests to make sense of the traumatic experience, they usually read up on abductions and seek therapists who will help them recover and understand their memories of the event—often through hypnosis. Frequently they associate with fellow abductees, either in person or online.
Clancy gained access to this faith-based community in the simplest possible way: she put an ad in the newspaper asking, “Have you been abducted by aliens?” She interviewed
her subjects at length and gave those who volunteered various tests to reveal any mental health problems (only one person qualifi ed) and how susceptible they were to false memories. The book explains how individuals can have memories of events that never occurred and describes the types of people who are more likely to become believers. In a nutshell, they are fantasy-prone and are often unhappy and trying to make sense of their lives. The abduction provides a touchstone.
At the very end, and with obvious reluctance, Clancy concludes that abduction beliefs provide “the same things that millions of people the world over derive from their religions: meaning, reassurance, mystical revelation, spirituality, transformation.” —Jonathan Beard